Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

From Toulouse to Sarlat

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

John Sweets is Professor Emeritus of History, specializing in the Vichy France era, the French Resistance, and occupied France. He has taught 19th and 20th century European history at the University of Kansas, University College, Dublin (Ireland), The School of International Studies (Fort Bragg, NC), and at the Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon (France).

John recently led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a journey of France Through the Ages.


After a copious breakfast at our hotel in Toulouse early Sunday morning, we board the bus, leaving La Ville Rose, the “Pink City,” along almost deserted streets.  Our trip today will take us to Sarlat, one of the principal cities of the Perigord, but first we will share some unforgettable experiences in the “Red City” of Albi, from which the Medieval Albigensian Crusade took its name.

In Albi’s main square two imposing structures await, the Cathedral of Ste. Cecile, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Archbishop’s Palace, which has been transformed into the Toulouse- Lautrec museum.

Hotel d'Assezat, Toulouse

Hotel d’Assezat, Toulouse. (Photo by author.)

At first sight, the Cathedral, made entirely of brick and mortar, looks more like a fortress than a church, reminding us of its origin as a statement of the Catholic Church’s power, a symbol of overwhelming force in face of the Cathars who had challenged the legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy.  Then, upon entry to the cathedral, what a surprise awaits us: one of the most extraordinary churches that one could hope to see.  Not only is the nave divided by a beautifully sculpted Jube (rood screen), separating the lay people from the clergy in their chancel, as was common in the Medieval period, but the walls and ceilings are covered with remarkable paintings.  Below the organ, a fresco of the Last Judgment stretches behind the altar, painted by Flemish artists in 15th century Italian Renaissance style.

Painted ceiling of the Chancel, Cathedral of Ste. Cecile

Painted ceiling of the Chancel, Cathedral of Ste. Cecile. (Photo by author.)

The Toulouse-Lautrec museum has been renovated recently and provides a wonderful setting for the paintings of this outstanding French painter who was born in the town of Albi, and whose wealthy, aristocratic family had extensive holdings in the surrounding countryside.  The collection includes some of the painter’s earliest drawings and paintings and features his pioneering poster art, as well as lithographs, pastels and paintings from each stage of his development as an artist.  Particularly appealing are some of his finest portraits, his paintings of horses and other animals, and his especially sensitive treatment of the women of the “comfort houses” of Montmartre in Paris.

The building that houses the Toulouse-Lautrec collection, formerly the Archbishop’s Palace, is a work of art in its own right, and the palace gardens offer a backdrop for gorgeous views over the Tarn River.

View over the Tarn River from the Bishop’s Gardens, Albi. (Photo by author.)

As we leave Albi behind, we follow a small, picturesque road through the countryside of southwestern France, passing the beautiful hillside town of Cordes, perched high above the valley of the Tarn. We make our way toward the Perigord and an early evening arrival in Sarlat.


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ France Through the Ages tour here.

A Recipe for Harira that Brings You Straight to Spain

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Dianne Konz has taught Spanish literature, language and civilization at the University of Texas at Austin and at George Washington University. She has also lectured and published studies on Spanish and Latin American literature, and Spanish culture.

Recently, Dianne and a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers explored the Paradores and Pousadas of the Iberian Peninsula.


One of the highlights of Paradores and Pousadas was a visit to Don Diego’s olive farm near Ronda. Upon arrival, we were greeted by our charming, witty, and knowledgeable host and invited into his home for a tapas lunch.  But in addition to the various tapas, Don Diego offered us a delicious Sephardic soup of Moroccan origin called harira. I loved the blend of flavors—exotic spices, earthy legumes, fresh herbs, small bits of meat.  Here at home, I’ve been researching recipes for harira and experimenting in my own kitchen. The recipe that follows is a close as I’ve come—for now—to replicating Don Diego’s dish.

This zesty, satisfying soup is good anytime, including in warm weather. It is hearty, but not heavy. The fragrant spices are lightened by the fresh cilantro and a touch of lemon juice. Harira has traditional roles as well: as a Moroccan soup of Muslim tradition, it is frequently served in the evening during Ramadan to break the fast, or in the early morning hours prior to a day of fasting. In the Sephardic tradition, harira is often served to break the fast after Yom Kippur.

Harira. Photo by author


4 oz. dried chickpeas (garbanzos) soaked overnight, OR, 1 ½ cups canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained (15 oz. can)
¾  to 1 lb. lean beef, such as good quality stew meat, OR, ¾ to 1 lb. coarsely ground lean beef
2 tablespoons olive oil
¾ – 1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, chopped small (1 ½ cups)
2 stalks celery, chopped small (1 cup)
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric, or 1 teaspoon saffron threads, ground in mortar and pestle
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes with juices
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus 4 or 5 whole sprigs of cilantro
¼ cup broad-leaf parsley (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
4 oz. dried green or brown lentils
½ cup long grain rice
1 ½ quarts rich chicken stock.  If using boxed, use low-sodium, and simmer two 32 oz. cartons until they are reduced to about 6 or 7 cups.

Bring the chicken stock to a boil, then lower heat to medium and reduce it while you prepare the other ingredients.

Pick through the lentils to remove any stones, rinse them and set aside.

Cut the stew meat into small cubes and toss with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot, such as a Dutch oven. When oil is almost smoking, add about 1/3 of the meat and brown over medium-high heat, stirring, until cubes are well-browned and meat juice is evaporated. Remove to a covered dish and continue cooking the meat in batches, adding a little more oil if necessary. Set the meat aside.

Add chopped onions and celery to the pan and cook, stirring, until they are softened but not browned. Reduce heat to medium and add cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, and cumin, stirring continually for about 1 minute.  Do not overheat the spices, as it can make them bitter.

Return the meat to the pan and mix well with the vegetables and spices. Add tomatoes with their juices, stirring well over medium-high heat. Throw in 4 or 5 whole sprigs of cilantro. (These will be removed at the end.)

Stir in the chicken stock, the chickpeas, and half of the lentils and bring just to a boil. Cover pot. Reduce heat to medium-low or low, to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook 1 ½ hours. Meat cubes must be very tender and chickpeas cooked, but whole.

Remove the whole cilantro sprigs. Add the rice and the remaining lentils, the lemon juice, and about ¼ cup chopped cilantro. Return soup to a simmer, cover, and cook for 30 minutes.

When the rice and the lentils are cooked, remove lid and adjust seasonings. If you like, refresh the flavors with a little more chopped cilantro, cinnamon, cumin, pepper and parsley, if you are using it. Heat uncovered for a few minutes, and serve!


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Paradores and Pousadas tour here

Elegant, Intimate Úbeda

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Dianne Konz has taught Spanish literature, language, and civilization at the University of Texas at Austin and at George Washington University. She has also lectured and published studies on Spanish and Latin American literature, and Spanish culture.

Recently, Dianne and a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers explored the Paradores and Pousadas of the Iberian Peninsula.


Stepping out of the gorgeous 16th-century palace—our home in Ubeda—onto the plaza ringed by golden brown Renaissance stone, it is hard not to feel the presence of the past. The tranquil elegance of the beautiful square is undisturbed by the occasional passing of locals headed toward the church at one end, or the breathtaking overlook just down the street. To the right, perhaps the most beautiful plaza in Spain, anchored by a majestic and serene Renaissance palace—today’s city hall. A passing shower has left the smooth, timeless stones of the plaza glistening beneath our feet. It is refreshingly cool this afternoon, and the air is fragrant with the scent of wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. We are off to get our bearings and discover the town.

Interior courtyard of the Úbeda Parador. Photo courtesy of Flickr user david_jones

Ubeda is a quiet city where single sounds emerge—church bells, lively conversations, children playing, a car passing. As we amble down the narrow streets, we pass palaces that were once homes to wealthy and powerful figures in the 16th-century Spanish court. Elegant coats of arms carved in stone, like silverwork, adorn the surface of some façades, giving quiet witness to the families that lived there. Today, these palaces are the backdrops for thoroughly modern and vibrant—yet traditional—Spanish life. Our street gives way to another beautiful square with a bandstand in the center. It is nearly the end of the school day and boys kick a soccer ball across a sandy playground. The elegant palace ahead with the Italian-style loggia is now the local music school.  As we pass, I ask a teenager which instrument he studies. He smiles, pats the case, and says with a wink, “Saxophone.”

Ubeda plaza

The renaissance architecture of Úbeda. Photo courtesy of Flickr user martinvarsavsky

Down the way, we spot a ceramic store. Beautiful earthenware glistens in the window and fills the entryway.   Warm browns and deep greens are the predominant local colors. A unique cut-out style graces many pieces.  As we enter the store, the rich aroma of burning wood draws us to a fireplace along the sidewall. The crackling fire casts a glow on the ceramics all around. We approach to say hello to the owner’s wife, an attractive, dignified woman seated beside the fire. She greets us warmly and gestures for us to come nearer to admire her three-week old granddaughter in the pram beside her. A lively toddler—big sister—pulls up a small bentwood rocker to join them, singing quietly to herself.

Ceramic of Triana

Ceramic of Triana, Seville. Photo by Annual (own work), via Wikimedia Commons

We wander to the back of the showroom, where the owner is deftly throwing a beautiful botijo—a traditional clay water jug—on a potter’s wheelI ask him about the distinctive cut-out patterns in some of his pieces. It is called calado –“calao” in the softened Andalusian speech—a style introduced by Moorish craftsmen centuries ago. He explains that the tall vases with the intriguing open work were used to burn aromatics—mint, rosemary, myrtle, and more—to “give atmosphere” to the room. Rather suddenly, the store fills with a large number of lively local teenagers, here on an excursion to view the potter’s craft. As they circle around this outgoing artisan, he gives them his full attention, explaining his technique and answering questions. They move down the narrow aisles, examining pieces, snapping photos on cell phones, and talking animatedly.  Amazingly, nothing hits the floor. As they file out, the potter waves to them and returns to his wheel. Once again, I am grateful for an up-close and personal view of modern Spaniards—of all ages—in this ancient and traditional urban landscape.

Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Paradores and Pousadas tour here.

One Traveler Honors Her Family Lost in Auschwitz

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Thomas Emmert Thomas Emmert, professor emeritus at Gustavus Adolphus College, is a historian of Central and Eastern Europe with a research focus on the former Yugoslavia. He received his B.A. in history from St. Olaf College and his Ph.D. in Balkan and Russian history from Stanford University.

Recently, Thomas led a Smithsonian group on a trip around Old World Europe. One of the most important and moving visits brought the group to Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp, where one of the travelers had a chance to honor family members lost in the Holocaust. See his post from the visit below:


No one is ever truly prepared for a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. For a generation born in the years just before or after the Holocaust, this inexpressible horror of the twentieth century continues to haunt us even as we move fully into our new century with all its possibilities.  We left Warsaw early in the morning and drove through the lush, rich countryside of south central Poland, eventually catching our first glimpses of the Tatra mountains on Poland’s southern border. It was a warm, sunny, infectiously beautiful, late spring day, and one could be forgiven for wishing for a lovely, leisurely picnic instead of contemplating a visit to a concentration camp. We were all so very quiet that morning, deep in our own thoughts, reflecting perhaps on our memories of reading Wiesel, Levi, Borowski or the memoirs of some other Auschwitz survivor. We were steeling ourselves for the shock and the tears even as we knew that nothing could really prepare us for this experience.  As we drove into Oświȩcim and caught sight of the first red barracks of Auschwitz, I reminded everyone that we came here to honor the memory of all those who suffered and perished in this nightmarish place. The silence continued.


Auschwitz-Birkenau main track. Photo by Sylvia Horsta

I don’t know if it’s easier to come to this place when the sun is shining and the weather warm and inviting. I have seen it in pouring rain and in deep winter when the bitter damp cold freezes the tears on our faces, and we cannot imagine a single minute in this place without adequate clothing and food. But the sun and the warmth could not distract us from the reality of what we were seeing.


Zorica and other Smithsonian travelers reading a psalm at Auschwitz. Photo by Sylvia Horsta

Zorica, our fellow traveler, was as ready for this day as she could be. All her life she had waited for this moment to honor all the members of her family who never returned from this earthly Hades. The tour was almost finished when she gathered us together as a group next to the train tracks and the unloading ramp at Birkenau where Zorica’s relatives and millions of others experienced their last moments of life. Embracing Zorica in a circle we together read a Psalm and listened as some of the group said Kaddish. Finally after almost seventy years, Zorica’s relatives and, for the rest of us, these representatives of the millions, were honored and given their own short funeral.


Aushwitz-Birkenau track entrance. Photo by Sylvia Horsta

Afterwards, everyone was silent for a very long time on the drive from Auschwitz to Cracow. Silvija, our Tour Leader, played a CD of some meditative violin music for us. As we approached Cracow, I spoke briefly and reminded everyone of Primo Levi’s admonition to us all. He said that we must not leave Auschwitz despondent and without hope. If we are to honor truly all those who died and suffered there, then it is our duty to live our lives as beautifully, honestly, and justly as we can. I know that  these words were very cathartic for all of us.  We had made our pilgrimage and were humbled beyond words by the experience. But we had indeed honored the millions and we accepted the admonition to live good and just lives. A great burden had been lifted from Zorica’s shoulders, and together we were ready to continue our great adventure into Central Europe.

At the Summer Home of Norwegian Composer Edvard Grieg

Friday, August 24th, 2012

A Smithsonian group at Trollhaugen, the summer home of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg

Just in! A Smithsonian group poses at Trollhaugen, the summer home of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. Next, the group leaves Bergen and heads for Geiranger, to what Study Leader Terje Leiren describes as “some of the most spectacular fjord country of the entire trip!”

Check their itinerary here to see where they’re headed!